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Plata-Potter focusing on Latinos’ early literacy

Sandra Plata-Potter wants to help first-generation Latino parents give their preschoolers a head start on literacy – and the resources to keep pace with their peers.

The CYFS doctoral student affiliate is collaborating with Faculty Affiliates Lisa Knoche and Helen Raikes to determine whether Latino parents’ engagement in a Head Start project encourages them to become more involved in literacy-related activities with their children. The researchers are also examining whether these home-based activities bolster children’s “emergent literacy” – the knowledge and skills that serve as foundations for reading and writing.

Plata-Potter’s study, which will become the basis for her dissertation, is employing both in-depth interviews and survey questionnaires to garner insights from Latino immigrant families living in a rural Midwestern community. Each participating family was previously involved in both the Head Start program and Rural Language and Literacy Connections, a study directed by Knoche and Raikes.

The current study will have Plata-Potter interviewing approximately 30 families and conducting secondary analyses of Rural LLC data from 142 families. Her efforts are being funded by a two-year Head Start Graduate Student Research Award from the Administration for Children, Youth and Families.

According to Plata-Potter, much of the motivation behind these efforts sprang from prior research on emergent literacy – research which has found that Latino dual-language learners often fall behind native English speakers before entering kindergarten.

“When children don’t start kindergarten with those skills, they lag behind their peers and it’s pretty much a [process of] trying to catch up throughout elementary school,” Plata-Potter said. “But they tend to not always catch up, so they need those emergent skills before they start kindergarten.”

Based on previous experience interviewing Latino parents as a Rural LLC research assistant, Plata-Potter believes this well-documented gap may be a byproduct of differences in cultural attitudes toward early education.

“[Latino parents] want their child to succeed and they know that education is important, but they know how to approach it from their perspective, from their lens,” Plata-Potter said. “It’s not that they don’t care as much – it’s that they come from a [school of thought] that the teacher knows best, and so they will send their children to school to learn. So when [their children] start school, they are at a deficit; they go in with peers who know how to write their name, who know the colors and might … know letters of the alphabet.”

In order to assess the hypothesized connection between parental Head Start engagement and home involvement, Plata-Potter will review attendance records for previously held “family literacy events” – Head Start-coordinated opportunities for parents to interact with their children and learn about emergent literacy. In turn, she will interview parents about these experiences and how they translated to the home.

Plata-Potter will explore the ties between parental involvement and emergent literacy outcomes by reviewing “family literacy portfolios,” which encapsulate the parent-child activities – including reading, writing and goal-setting – that occurred in the home. Plata-Potter plans to review these portfolios with parents and children as a means of understanding how their beliefs and attitudes influenced their efforts. The impact of these practices will be assessed by measuring children’s alphabet knowledge, word and rhyme awareness, vocabulary, and a variety of other emergent literacy indicators.

The answers to these questions are especially significant within the context of rural communities, Plata-Potter noted, such as the one that houses her study’s Latino families.

“By the year 2025, the Latino population will be one of the biggest in rural America. They’re moving away from the big cities and into rural America, which changes the whole picture,” said Plata-Potter, whose Puerto Rican parents raised her in New York City.

Along with its rural focus, Plata-Potter is optimistic that the study’s in-depth interviews and portfolio discussions will yield unique insights into how Latino families incorporate new emergent literacy philosophies and knowledge into their existing beliefs and practices.

“I want to know why – ‘Why did they do this in a certain way?’ – so that it can inform us [about] how to work with them in the future,” Plata-Potter said, “and contribute to evolving their thinking about reading to children and literacy in the home.”